PROFILE – Tunisia’s new speaker is rebel with cause


Rached Ghannouchi, the new Tunisian parliament speaker, has served exile and prison for his political views.

The 78-year-old was elected the new speaker of Tunisia’s Parliament on Wednesday in a vote by lawmakers.

For much of his life, he was chased by the security forces. He returned from exile after the Arab Spring revolution and took the reins of his Ennahda movement, a moderate and democratic party.

During his student years in Cairo, he was an admirer of the pan-Arab Nasserism movement, based on the ideas of socialist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

He later moved to Damascus in 1964 where he obtained a degree in philosophy from Damascus University and then left for Paris for a doctorate. There, he joined the Muslim missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat (Outreach Community).

He drifted to Islamic politics gradually and in 1981 established the Islamic Tendency Movement (Harakat al-Ittijah al-Islami) in Tunisia, and with this, his long struggle with the Tunisian authorities began.

The movement promised to engage in peaceful politics. But the Habib Bourguiba regime sentenced Ghannouchi to 11 years in prison, which ended with a presidential pardon in 1984.

He was rearrested by the regime in 1987 over a number of charges including “leading an unrecognized organization”. He was sentenced to life later that year.

He was pardoned in May 1988 when the regime changed.

Ghannouchi left Tunisia for Algeria in the wake of losing a legislative election in 1989. 

Three years later, he was sentenced to life by a Tunisian military court for “plotting against the president”.

By 1993, Ghannouchi was permanently settled in London amid a fierce campaign by the Tunisian regime against members of the Ennahda movement. He was now leading the movement.

As the Arab Spring gained momentum, Tunisian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and this gave Ghannouchi a window of opportunity.

He returned to his country in March 2011 to tens of thousands of supporters. In October of the same year, Ennahda won legislative elections, and formed the first post-revolution government in a coalition with two secular parties.

In the 2014 elections, the movement was defeated by Nidaa Tounes party, but it shared power with it in a coalition government.

Observers at first thought that Ghannouchi would run for prime minister, but he chose to lead the parliament and this could be his last post when he steps down from the party’s presidency next year in May.
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